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Continuing my journey into modern "space opera," I decided to take a break from the particulars of Iain M. Banks to revisit a favourite novel of mine, "A Fire Upon the Deep" by Vernor Vinge. As with Banks's work, I had heard about it before I decided at last to read it. In its case, I had just started to read a paperback edition from the library when I noticed my local branch was selling off its battered hardcover edition; I bought it and wound up quite glad I had.

The book's universe is quite complicated, but never quite overwhelms the story it's telling. Vinge's work has long focused on what he calls "the Singularity," the belief that technological advancement is bound to accelerate until things can no longer be described in terms we can understand: a sort of grandiose variant on "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," intended to be optimistic. To tell a story spanning the stars but keep from running away from comprehensibility, Vinge configured the galaxy itself. The further towards the edge you get, the better your technology works (Earth itself is stranded down in the "Slow Zone," where you can't travel faster than light; the human characters in the book are the heirs of long voyages into the "Beyond"), until at last you reach transcendence and your machines become ephemeral gods. A human experiment just inside the "Transcend" unwittingly revives an ancient power less willing on moving on to something beyond our comprehension but more intent on control, and some survivors flee back into the galaxy. On landing well out of the way, though, they encounter another one of the book's engaging creations, and things get complicated. The "Tines" look like small packs of unusual dogs, but each pack is a group intelligence, coordinated not by anything so common as telepathy but by high-frequency sound. With this one assumption established, Vinge develops it with easy clarity and vigorous extrapolation. There's another interesting alien species involved in a rescue attempt, the "Skroderiders," who are described as looking like ornamental trees or shrubs rooted in metal wheeled carts that provide short-term memory. Another odd but interesting touch is that the big picture is provided by postings to a sort of galactic Usenet, populated with befuddled newbies, flamers, and smugly detached observers, cutting-edge enough for the time it was written.

Vinge later wrote another book set in the same universe, "A Deepness in the Sky," located down in the "Slow Zone" and featuring a character who found his way into "A Fire Upon the Deep" not quite through his own efforts. Oddly enough, though, I just couldn't get through this later book despite hearing that people were even more impressed with it. To me, its aliens didn't have the same intriguing spark of strangeness, and the plot was somehow more elusive. Still, falling out with science fiction book series is much more common with me than with visual series, so I didn't let it affect my enjoyment of the earlier work.

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